Sympathy for English Language Learners

A while back I was reviewing some comments my editor had made on an e-learning script I wrote at my full time job. The phrase in question was building block skills and whether to hyphenate. Without a hyphen, the phrase could be interpreted as someone was building block skills, whatever those might be, but in reality, context would make clear to anyone taking the course that we were talking about building block skills. However, my editor and I share a common background dealing with documentation intended for translation, which means that we aim for total clarity in language no matter what might be obvious to 99.99 percent of our audience. When what you are writing is going to be translated into 20+ languages, or possibly not translated at all but read in English by people with very low English proficiency, there is no room for ambiguity. Although the content we work on now is overwhelmingly limited to a native English-speaking audience, old habits die hard.

This building-block skills discussion reminded about just how confusing English can be to non-native speakers. A roommate I had in Russia once said that there are two kinds of languages: those that are easy to start using right away but almost impossible to perfect and those that take forever just to be able to say the simplest things correctly but allow you to become fluent quickly after you master the extensive fundamentals. While Russian is the latter, English is absolutely the former.

Look at just the little word of. I can say November 27 or the 27th of November without any difference in denotation and no unintended connotation. Likewise with the theme of my book or my book’s theme.

But this is not always the case. If I say a bottle of wine, most people will understand that my primary interest lies in what’s inside the bottle. But a wine bottle is not the same thing. It generally denotes just the glass portion. You would bring a bottle of wine to dinner at a friend’s house but you probably wouldn’t bring a wine bottle and would find it odd if that’s what your friend requested. Yet when inquiring about said friend’s wine cellar, it would be perfectly normal to ask merely how many bottles she has. Of course, in a bar fight, you can just as easily hit someone over the head with wine bottle or a bottle of wine.

Sometimes of changes the meaning even more significantly. If the dinner party host is a teetotaler and asked you to bring soda instead of wine, the top of the soda bottle and the soda bottle top are completely separate pieces of plastic. And if the dinner takes place in restaurant, you might need to use the women’s restroom but if you ask the waiter where the restroom of women is, you might come across as having some unusual sexual proclivities.

Even when of doesn’t change the meaning, there are many phrases that simply aren’t used. Try changing these attributive noun phrases (a phrase in which a noun describes another noun) to phrases using the Norman genitive (using the word of). They will probably sound odd to you, if not plain wrong.

A toy store

A customs agent

Or how about changing these Saxon genitives (using the apostrophe for possession) to Norman genitives?

Jennifer’s future

My dad’s arm

And now these Norman genitives to Saxon genitives or attributive noun phrases.

A gaggle of geese

A friend of mine 

OK, OK, that last example is an entirely different issue because you’d have to use the possessive my, which is a linguistic change common across many languages, but still, you can’t say mine friend or mine’s friend.

To keep going down the rabbit hole, what about the price of fuel? If you want to use an attributive noun there, you have to make price plural – fuel prices. Why? Why?!

And then you have the phrase the kitchen window. You can’t say the window of the kitchen but you can say the window in the kitchen. But doesn’t the kitchen window leave open the possibility that there is more than one, while the window in the kitchen unequivocally means there’s only one? Now we’re getting into articles and prepositions, and those (or their lack of, in the case of Russian) are just a nightmare no matter what language you are learning.

Yes, I’ve just rolled about 15 distinct grammar concepts into one blog post, but the point is, for a foreigner to master English, well, he just has to be Vladimir Nabokov. The man’s command of English was nothing short of miraculous. No, seriously, English is one tough foreign language. But at least foreign is an adjective, so we don’t have to worry about English possibly being a tough language of foreign.


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